A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE BY OSCAR WILDE AT THE ARTS THEATRE
‘All women become like their mothers, that is their tragedy. No man does, that is his’
Oscar Wilde’s wit shoots through the entire text of this intriguing play. Here was a writer at odds with his own society. Super talented, brilliant and hyper educated he was still an outsider, an Irishman among English society and eventually too much for it to take.
Men and women debate their roles throughout this intriguing play. The dialogue flashes with the tongue-in-cheek ironic quips that have made Wilde famous. Yet in the context of this country house drama, a kind of `Downton Abbey with style, the cynical asides begin to take on real meaning.
“Children begin by loving their parents’ drawls the caddish Lord Illingworth as he strides around the stage in his ultra-chic Edwardian outfit “Later they judge them. Seldom if ever do they forgive them’. By the end of the play, this hard hitting insight will redound on him in a way he could never expect .
When the play opens, four – times- married Lady Catherine Pontefract ( a consistently funny Isla Blair)? entertainis on the terrace of her country house whilst she harasses her husband Sir John ( brilliantly rendered by a tweedy but saucy John Bett) Her sly and stylish guest Mrs. Allonby confides some of her sharp observations about men and women in the American newcomer Miss Hester Worsely – whilst she openly plans an affair with Lord Iliingsworth.
Stiff with throwaway lines and amusing declarations about the state of war between the sexes, this opener introduce a clutch of fellow aristocrats all with some pretty cynical views about the world, the poor, the nature of life and the futility of being anything less than immoral about it all. Just as well we had the still-very- funny Roy Hudd as the tedious but sarcy vicar, Reverend Daubery. It was a special treat when he emerged from the the curtains during scene changes with a group of young musicians - to give us a sequence of decidely old music hall songs as entr’acte entertainment. It isn’t often you find yourself singing along to ‘Sweet Little Polly Perkins from Paddington Green’’ in the middle of an Edwardian play, but it was a surprising fun - and relevant - touch.
Back in the play, we learn that the caddish Lord Illingsworth has recruited a young man among the group, naïve and local Gerald Arbuthnot, ( a convincing Tom Gibson played with a blend of eagerness and priggishness) as his private secretary . At the evening dinner party which follows the women take up the hard nosed chatter about how men must be kept on their toes by trickery, how women must keep a constant eye on them and make them suffer and men can expect little from marriage but misery which is what they deserve. Overhearing all this the purer hearted Lady Hester steps forward to give them all a sound telling-off for their amoral outlook. When the men join them Lord Illingworth is still brooding on the identity of the new arrival his new secretary’s mother, Mrs Arbuthnot.
Katy Stephens plays her with style. She is the Woman of No importance of the title. With her lovely hair flowing and a loose fitting velvet dress, she embodies the New Woman of the time , the heroine of the Arts and Crafts movement, think Pre-Raphaelites, a natural unmade up beauty with a graceful mien but a dark past. As the plot turns out, she is of great importance after all.
The play is full of melodramatic action as well as super subtle insight. Oscar Wilde loved America and they loved him back “ I’ve nothing to declare but my genius ‘ he declared s as he arrived at Customs, and the American interloper’s role represents for him a real alternative to the stuffy judgmental drawing room conservatism of the English upper classes. This and his radical feminist views suffuse the play.
Legendary director Dominic. Dromgoogle rinses the action for every playful bon mot and sharp sided aphorism. But he reserves his firepower for Wilde’s real interest how men treat women and how society treats the ones to fail to play by the rules..